SHAKESPEARE^ SKUii WAS
BY A WARWICKSHIRE MAN
A HUMAN SKULL. I BOUGHT IT PASSING CHEAP
OF COURSE 'TWAS DEARER TO ITS Fmv>T EWPlCYEt
i THOUGHT MORTALITY DID WELL TO KEEP
SOME MUTE MEMENTO OF THE OLD DLSTROYER"
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
HOW SHAKESPEARE'S SKULL WAS,,,.
STOLEN AND FOUND.
A WARWICKSHIRE MAN.
A human skull ! I bought it passing cheap ;
Of course 'twas dearer to its first employer.
I thought Mortality did well to keep
Some mute memento of the old Destroyer.
ELLIOT STOCK, 62, PATERNOSTER ROW, E.G.
[All Rights Reserved.'^
UNIVERSITY OF CAUFORNL
HOW SHAKESPEARE'S SKULL
HOW SHAKESPEARE'S SKULL
THE ORIGIN OP THE PLOT.
I SELDOM pass the sleepy-looking * Bear ' Inn, originally
the ' Bear and Ragged Staff ' (the cognizance of a
branch of the Warwick family, who lived at Beau-
champ's Court near here), in the town of Alcester,
without calling to mind a remarkable interview which
took place some eighty years ago in connection with
the front room on the right-hand side of that quaint
Jacobean entrance. And now that Mr. M., the only
person likely to be affected by this disclosure, has
passed away at the age of seventy-five, I no longer feel
hesitation in transcribing from rough notes and
memoranda made and collected by him, a series of
facts which may startle all those who, like myself,
reverence the very dust of the immortal bard.
That Shakespeare's skull was stolen admits, I think,
of very little doubt ; yet I must not anticipate, but
6 How Shakespeare s Skull zvas Stolen.
endeavour to trace ' this strange eventful history ' from
The uncle of the late Mr. M., a youth who bore the
name of Frank Chambers, was placed with a medical
man (the only one practising in Alcester) about the
year 1787. He was a wild, rather dashing young
fellow ; not bad-looking, if a portrait taken in after
years be evidence ; and, coming straight from attend-
ance at a London hospital, found the exclusive society
of a small town uncongenial, and its restraints irksome.
Owing to a certain mild escapade — the manuscript
alleges that it was nothing more heinous than a
practical joke upon the curate in charge at the tumble-
down old rectory — he found it convenient to leave
Alcester and to go abroad ; and as Englislimen did not
then dream of a trip to America or to Australia, his
Avanderings were confined to France, The heart of the
French nation was then beginning to throb with the
feverish heat of revolution, and 'gentlemen of the
pav6 ' had already defined liberty on the * lucus a non
lucendo ' principle.
Frank Chambers, like Arthur Young, was a strict
observer of the national moral bankruptcy, and three
of his letters from Eheims show that he was not
deceived, like some greater minds among his own
countrymen, by the tendency of thought and action in
France at that remarkable period. When one hundred
thousand Frenchmen were compelled by the murderous
Tlie Origin of the Plot. 7
hatred of an ignorant mob, and by the destruction of
their stately chateaux, to flee in haste, there was * no
room of safety ' for a son of perfide Albion. Frank
returned to England, during what year I know not, but
in a letter written from London without date, he
mentions the exceptional severity of the winter, which
probably was that of 1791.
Again he came to Alcester, and, assisting his former
employer, was well known in the neighbourhood as a
jovial, light-hearted fellow.
Two or three years pass without record, until he
mentions the arrival of Lord "William Seymour on a
visit to his brother. Lord Hertford, at Eagley Hall, a
splendid mansion overlooking, like a haughty custodian,
the quiet little town.
Frank Chambers became acquainted with Lord
"William, although there could be little fellowship be-
tween the harsh, penurious, and eccentric habits of his
lordship and those of the incipient surgeon. But the
intimacy was of this advantage to the latter : that it
proved the introduction to the excellent and sometimes
notable company which the newly-created marquis
gathered round him at rare intervals at his Warwick-
shire seat. It also leads to that startling adventure
which until now has been as secret as the grave.
I have more than once questioned the late Mr. M. as
to its precise date, but he assured me that, although his
uncle kept a rough diary at intervals, half professional,
8 How Shakespeare s Skull was Stolen.
half domestic — extracts from which, are before me,
wherein even such trivial matters are entered as : ' Aug.
4th. Eode over to the " Love Cup," at Alne, where I
had a quart of Barium perry. Saw Jim Morris ; he
has a fine colt at the MiU pasture.' ' March 8th.
Drove the doctor to a consultation with Dr. Brandis
at Hinley' (query, Henley- in -Ard en) — the year is
seldom given, or even the month.
He seems, however, to have taken some pains in re-
cording observations made by men of mark at Lord
Hertford's table, and found especial pleasure in de-
scribing the good things with which that table was
furnished, mixing, as in Tom Hood's sonnet, sauce and
sentiment with concise impartiality. Thus he writes :
' When Garrick was at Eagley, some years ago, Lord
Hertford says that he gave a comical performance in
the steward's room for the amusement of the servants
and others ; and he told his host afterwards that one
of the audience was as hard to unlace as the old
Speaker (the name is illegible), for when the
folks were shaking with laughter " Hob-nail " grunted
out, " Didst ever th' see Jack Murrel grin through a
horse-collar at the ' Barley Mow,' Stoodley, eh ?" '
Then follows a minute description of the viands at
that day's dinner, with the remark, ' The popular dish,
macaroni, as served by the Duke of York's chef de
cuisine — delicious !'
Also, ' My lord told Mr. William Throckmorton, in
The Origin of the Plot. 9
iiiy hearing, that when Hume and Lord Lyttelton '
(this must have been Thomas, the second baron, better
known as the wicked Lord Lyttelton) ' were at the
Hall they had a violent quarrel, in consequence of
which "a meeting" was arranged at the kennels;
" but," said he, " Nugent smoothed Tom's ruffled
feathers, and his honour was carried to Halesowen
that night, whilst I ' satisfied ' Hume next day by
letting him contradict everybody round the table."
We had stewed eels, Severn lampreys, with a haunch
of mutton wrapt in paste, boiled turkey, ham, and
pastry, with cheese to follow.'
I now come to the careful entry in the diary which
seems to have suggested the extraordinary expedition
of Frank Chambers. Mark me, there is no date ; but
from the two entries immediately preceding — ' Received
a brace of pheasants from John Wilcox, of Wixford :
first this season,' and ' Lord Hertford tells me of the
serious illness of Mr. Millar, his son's old tutor ' — we
may reasonably fix the autumn of 1794. ' Sent for to
Eagley Hall to converse with the Abb6 Latour, who
had just arrived from France with dismal accounts of
the provinces. Fearful scenes, which I was able to
confirm from my experience. Found that the Abb6
knew Edgworth, Gardel, Eancourt, and Bertini, among
former acquaintances of mine. We dined at six
o'clock : everything pretty good, but not so well served
as usual. Had to wait for hermitage. Besides Lord
10 How Shakespeare' s Skull luas Stolen.
Hertford and tlie ladies, met the Eev. Samuel Parr,
two Mr. Conways, Mr. Ingram, also Captain Fortescue,
Mr. Knight, Mr. Eudge, Joshua Jennings, and other
neighbouring gentry. Dr. Parr very glum : sate with
a large napkin under his chin, heeding nobody, and
feeding as if the fellow had kept right off all the fasts
in the calendar. . . . After dinner the conversation
somehow turned upon the " Stratford Jubilee," and
Captain Fortescue wondered if Shakespeare's image in
the old church, especially the head, was really like
him. " You had besth dig him up, John Fortescue,"
said Dr. Parr (who lisped, and called the poet Thack-
thpear) ; " may I be there to thee." Then Squire
Moore mentioned that old Horace Walpole had offered,
after the Jubilee, to give George Selwyn three hundred
guineas if he could secure Shakespeare's head. Where-
upon Parr remarked, "If he could thteal away hith
brainth, that were cheap to him, thir." Afterwards I
walked home beside the doctor's pony to Bartlam's.
He was near being spilt opposite Griffith's at Arrow.'
The Plot. II
Herb we leave the diary for a time, and I quote from
notes made after conversation with the late Mr, M,,
who often begged the recital of this singular exploit
from his Uncle Chambers, and who himself transcribed
in full some salient features of it. From which it
appears that, upon returning home after the above
dinner at Ragley, Frank Chambers pondered well how
he could gratify his old inclination for adventure, and
the liberal curiosity of the well-known curioso of
Strawberry Hill, He then lodged at the surgery, a
comely-looking house still standing at the corner of
Malt Mill Lane, Alcester, It was built during the
reign of Queen Anne by a branch of the Boteler family,
whose arms — a chevron between three cups, as seen in
the great east window of the chantry chapel attached
to St, Milburge's at Wixford — were, until the door
was renewed some fifty years ago, carved on an oval
shield within the scroll pediment over the entrance.
Here, in a room on the first floor, still, I think,
12 How SJiakespeave' s Skull was Stolen.
bearing traces of old adornment, three men joined
Chambers one night in the autumn of 1794. Their
names were Cull, Dyer, and Hawtin, and they were
supposed to call for some medicine for their wives.
The only bottles on the table were, however, supplied
by the near-hand ' Golden Cup,' and the medicines
were of an extremely comfortable and exhilarating
nature. Frank Chambers had some professional dealings
with the men previously ; and he used laughingly to
regret that, with a large churchyard within a few feet
of his own door, even then full to repletion, he had
been obliged to further the interests of science at the
expense of the disused humanity of a neighbouring
parish, Alcester churchyard being too public for noc-
' It is not for that I want you,' he said, '■ but to get
at the skull of a chap who has been dead nearly two
' Why, you've got one as looks a thousan' year old
already,' interposed Mr. Hawtin. There was a some-
what grim article of the kind nibbling the hard ledge
of the high mantelpiece.
' That's it, Jim ; I want another to bear him company.
The poor fellow finds it unked here o' nights since he
was swinging free and easy on Mappleborough Green.'
' Well, young master,' exclaimed Harry Cull, ' I are
game, so be these ; where's the dig, and what's the
The Plot. 13
* Stratford Church, and three pounds apiece for the
' With laps,' put in Hawtin, who had at first hesi-
tated about joining, and whose bibulous propensities
'Any quantity after it is over; not a drop before,'
' I met these fellows at Stratford Church ' (writes the
late Mr. M., from Frank Chambers's dictation). ' It is
so long ago that I forget the exact date, yet I remember
uncommonly well it was a near thing about getting
there at all ; for just when I ought to have been setting
off, old Grafton down the street took it into his head to
have a fit, and as he was a capital patient, I had to
remain by the bedside until the doctor returned from
seeing Mistress Sarah Wilcox of More Hall. It was
very dark, too ; and in my haste I pitched head-fore-
most over a footstone near the west door, and cut my
nose. To my surprise I found Cull and Tom Dyer
already hard on, whilst Hawtin scouted, shovelling the
earth from the base of a new square tomb on the south
side of the chancel, about ten yards from the small
' " What the deuce are you at T said I.
< " Why, you see," answered Dyer, " we warn't
agoing to wait here all night ; and this 'are's your mon,
14 Hozu Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen.
' What could the idiots be dreaming about "? Their
mistake was afterwards thus explained. I had men-
tioned to Hawtin (it must have been when I was to}>-
heavy) that the skull I wished to secure at Stratford
was that of one "William Shakespeare. j!^ow, Hawtin
was sweet on a Stratford lass named Esther White, who
lived in service at Parson Davenport's, and went court-
ing every Sunday. Like a fool, he told her our inten-
tion. He would have worked the oracle to better
purpose could he have obtained the keys of the church.
Hawtin, who was rather scared at the adventure, asked
Esther if she knew anything about William Shake-
speare. At first she could only call to mind an inn
bearing that name ; but at length she remembered a
man asking to see master about a tomb to William
Shakespeare, and she showed Hawtin where it was.
' The maid's memory was defective, and neither she
nor Hawtin could read, or another name would have
appeared, the tomb being really built over the remains
of William Shakespeare Payton, a man well-known in
Stratford, who died in the autumn a year or two
before. Hawtin's hesitation about the adventure had
turned to eagerness when he conceived that this tomb
would be the centre of our operations ; and he was
taken aback when I whispered to him that he had set
his mates on the wrong scent.
' " Put the soil back," I said, " this is not the man ;
didn't I tell you he was inside, and 200 years old."
The Plot. 15
* " Yes !" answered one, " but we thought that that
was only your gammon."
' " So you wished to gammon me in return ; but now,
my lads," I continued, " sharp's the word ; we have
lost two hours already, and Battersbee, with his bull's-
eye, looks round sometimes."
* I thought we never should get inside that church.
The windows were far above our heads, and well pro-
tected by stout stanchions. Dyer, who had served in a
smithy, worked with a will at the lock of the chancel
door, using the tools I had brought ; but those con-
founded old locks have a way of keeping close, and it
would not yield. Farther down on the same side was
a larger door of ribbed oak, and here Tom was making
way when Hawtin scattered us with the caution, " Men
among the trees."
* I crept round towards the porch, and, resting on a
mound, I plainly heard footsteps on the broad flags in
the avenue. I crept nearer. The overhanging boughs,
with remnants of leaves, made it too dark to distinguish
any form. I doubt if I could have seen a ghost ; but
I was within a few feet of the heavy tread of a man,
multiplied by Hawtin's fears — a man, as shown by the
voice, which was low and husky. He paced to and fro,
the whole length of the avenue ; sometimes hurriedly,
and then he would pause. Likely enough he had just
left the public-house, for his speech was sometimes
incoherent, and sometimes sadly too plain. He gave
1 6 How Shakespeare s Skull was Stolen.
vent to a deep trouble. His daughter, for he called
passionately upon his child, had been buried here. A
great wrong had been done, by whom I could not make
out ; but he shook the gates angrily, and muttered
three times, " I will — yes, I will !" Long afterwards I
discovered that his anger had been justly caused by a
lamentable occurrence at Bidford Grange. At length,
(it seemed an hour) he moved rapidly away ; and having
reassured my companions, we returned to the charge.
The door was soon opened, and, tinder-box in hand, we
groped our way to the great chancel, and with consider-
able difficulty, for the letters were much worn, I singled
out the slab, tlitn about three feet by seven feet, which
covers the remains of Shakespeare.
' Hawtin waited on the outside, to throw a list ball
against the windows in case of alarm, whilst Dyer and
Cull, by the dim light of two curiously contrived
lanterns, began to pick out the mortar dividing that
slab from Thomas Nashe's. Great care was necessary,
that no trace of our search might remain.
' As the men stealthily worked, the gloomy silence
was quite chilling. Several times the woodwork in
the high pews went off with a bang like a gum-tree ;
and once I could almost have sworn that I heard a
rumbling in the Clopton Chapel. When the stone
was raised and placed on one side, there was very little
masonry beneath, chiefly a thick layer of fine brown
mould, mixed with woody fibre and fragments of glass,
The Plot. 17
which had been sabject to the actioa of fire. There
was evidence also of a previous disturbance, for, in
addition to a circular piece of metal the size of a guinea,
having on one side two crowns and a tieur-de-lis, and on
the other a shield bearing three trees, and the name
Ashwin beneath, we turned up a thigh-bone and finger-
joints near the surface, and afterwards several teeth,
with a knot of oak and a few attenuated nails with
' But the most curious discovery was that of a ring,
or fillet, probably of bronze, very much worn and
indented, in which an inscription had been traced, the
only legible part being, as I afterwards found, the half
Eoman letters, G- U — L M — S (then follows a device
like a sword), and a rude monogram, H. S. or I. H. S.
' The men had dug to the depth of three feet, and I
now watched narrowly, for, by the clogging of the
darker earth, and that peculiar humid state — smell I
can hardly call it — which sextons and earth-grubbers so
well understand, I knew we were nearing the level
where the body had formerly mouldered.
* " No shovels but the hands," I whispered, " and
feel for a skull."
' There was a long pause as the fellows, sinking in the
loose mould, slid their horny palms over fragments of
bone. Presently, " I got him," said CuD ; *' but he's
fine and heavy."
* Delving to the armpits with both hands, he tugged
1 8 Hozv Shakespeare's Shtll was Stolen.
for some seconds, and then brought up a huge grey
stone, like that with which the church is built.
' I began to be sceptical, when Tom Dyer, who was
groping some two feet away from where the skull ought
to have been, according to the position of the slab, came
upon it, and lifted it out, diving again for the jaw.
' I handled Shakespeare's skull at last, and gazed at
it only for a moment, for time was precious. It was
smaller than I expected, and in formation not much
like what I remembered of the effigy above our heads.
At home I made a minute examination, the particulars of
which, with other memoranda, were lent to Dr. Booker,
of Alcester, and subsequently lost, much to my regret.
'Then my men most carefully replaced the earth
and stone, ramming all interstices with fragments of
old mortar brought for the purpose. This, with a
liberal sprinkling of dust, plentiful in the old church
at that time, effectually concealed our depredations.
My men were surprised at the care which I bestowed
upon the venerable article. " Any skull from the
charnel-house close by," they remarked, " would have
answered fully as well, without the labour."
'"Every man has his fancy," I replied; "this is
' When we reached Oversley Bridge, I gave them
their money, and more ; and a few hours afterwards
paid for nine quarts of ale at the " Globe," so that they
seemed well satisfied with the night's adventure.'
The Result. 19
* My next step,' continues Frank Chambers, ' was to
write in strict confidence to the much-talked-of Mr.
Walpole, now Lord Orford. He had been lately stay-
ing with Marshal Conway during the latter's illness, at
Park Place, in Oxfordshire, and my letter followed
him, and was answered from Berkeley Square.
* He remembered the expression of his former keen
interest in Shakespeare, politely appreciated my confi-
dence and labours, and "would give all the skulls of
his living relatives," so he wrote, " to possess that of
the deceased bard ;" but he offered no terms. Again
I wrote. He replied that he had been ill, was worn
to a skeleton, and at nearly four-score could not meet
me in Warwickshire. Would I oblige him by coming
to Strawberry Hill, and then all could be arranged.
' Believing that he was shuffling, and desirous of
peeping, without paying for the show, I stated my in-
ability to comply with his request, and, reminding
him of his old offer of 300 guineas for Shakespeare's
20 Hoiv Shakespeare s Skull ivas Stolen.
skull, begged to know if lie were still anxious to
' There was further delay. At length he arranged to
send down a confidant to treat with me for the treasure,
and late one evening in December a message was left
at my rooms from a Mr. Kirgall, or some such name,
requesting to see me at the " Bear " Inn.'
(Then comes the interview, to which reference has
' Upon entering the low-pitched room, a middle-aged
man came forward, dressed in a manner antiquated even
for those days. He was rather short, had weak eyes,
and was deferential almost to timidity. He had been
in Alcester, he said, many years before, and remembered
as a lad taking down some figures with reference to a
new church under the direction of his present em-
ployer and Colonel Conway; and had copied a design
for a tower somewhere near. He was now sent to
express his lordship's pleasure and cordial congratula-
tions at my success in securing the veritable skull of
Shakespeare. Might he be allowed to inspect %
'I fetched it. Mr. Kirgall was in raptures. His
lordship, who had kept our correspondence a profound
secret, known only to two maiden ladies and the dear
Duchess of Gloucester, would indeed rejoice to possess
— the loan of it. AVould I entrust it to his keeping ?
" At one price," I rejoined, eventually reducing that
TJie Result. 21
' The gentleman still dallied ; and, soon seeing that
his errand was merely to obtain an unconditional loan
of the article, I prepared to leave the room. He
sought to detain me. Did I consider the risk of
having a stolen skull % The Earl did not wish to
retain it for his own pleasure, but to show it to other
people ; " besides," he added, forgetting his diffidence,
"it might not be genuine." Here I stopped him.
Finding that I was firm, and further parley on Lord
Orford's behalf useless, Mr. Kirgall sought to do a little
business on his own account. Examining the skull
and the jaw, which I had attached, he noticed that,
whilst the molars had disappeared, there were several
front teeth in a fair state of preservation, although
loose from exposure. Might he extract one, only
one % he would fee me handsomely.
'"AH, or none," ' I replied ; and, taking up the skull,
I abruptly wished him good-night.
' Putting my head out of the window early next
morning to answer a call, I saw my dear friend holding
the open door of the London coach opposite the
" Angel," and peering up and down the street. Per-
haps he thought I should consider the matter more
favourably at the last moment. He was mistaken.
The coach rattled off, and Mr. Kirgall reached Berke-
ley Square on the morrow, minus one parcel.
'The Keverend Samuel Parr, curate in charge of
22 Hoiv Shakespeare' s Skull was Stolen.
HattoD, had shown the utmost reverence for the
memory of Shakespeare ; and a quaint drawing of
New Place, Stratford, was entrusted to his care by
Mr, Colmore, of Birmingham, after the recent riots.
This I saw being framed at Twamley's, in Warwick,
a few days after the interview with Kirgall; and I
suddenly decided, being so near Hatton, to sound the
doctor about purchasing so rare a memento of his idol.
My excuse must be youth and innocence, and a scantily
* Leaving Pritchard to drive the hired gig back to
Stratford, I had a brisk walk to Hatton, the moon just
showing the hoar-frost on the ground. Thinking that
the vicarage would be handy to the church, I made my
way there, but could see no house. There was a faint
light from the tower, for the men were ringing to call
Christmas. I well remember listening beneath the
belfry window, an unusually lofty one ; and presently,
when they paused, one man struck up the chorus of a
carol which my old uncle sang at Studley when I was a
' But Christmas then is Christmas now, though altered are the
When we sate up at midnight to hear the merry chimes.*
' In a few minutes I found myself at the back of the
vicarage. " This door will do as well as any other,"
thought I ; and I gave a sturdy rap.
The Result. 23
• " Come in — come in," from a shrill voice, which I
recognised, to my surprise, as the doctor's.
* Somewhat abashed at my intrusion, I entered the
kitchen. There, on one side of the wide hearth, sat
the little great man in a well-padded library-chair, with
his right leg resting on a settle, at the extreme end of
which was a wiry old man, in brown vetteL^vaistcoat
and nankeen breeches and gaiters, polishing*t|^hain,
evidently the man-of-all-work. On the opposite side
were seated two gaunt female servants, not the least
in awe of their learned master. The visitors were, a
clergyman, not known, but I think from Tamworth,
and my old acquaintance, John Bartlam.
* Dr. Parr, who resembled a short-horned bull, wore a
shabby skull-cap, which, being much too large, now and
then slipped forwards and rested on his bushy eye-
brows. He had no whiskers, and the eyes were very
searching. He wore a loose coat with large buttons,
black breeches, and ribbed worsted stockings, with broad
buckles to his shoes. He looked what he desired to
be — the old-fasliioned country parson.
'Laying down his pipe, he greeted me somewhat
stiffly, but offered a bed. Waiting until the servants
and the Tamworth visitor had retired, leaving the
doctor and Mr. Bartlam over their grog, I ventured to
hint at the object of my visit. Eecalling a former
conversation, I cautiously felt my way. If such an
24 Hczv Shakespeare' s Skull ivas Stolen.
article could be procured, would Dr. Parr like to possess
Shakespeare's skull %
' " How could he possess it ?" he interposed testily;
" it was in the grave, if anywhere."
* I continued : " If you, sir, would make it worth the
risk, I happen to know "
' " Know what ?" he shouted. " Has that fellow Gar-
rick left it to his wife ? He declared he would steal it
at the Jubilee."
' " Oh no !" I rejoined ; " it is there— that is "
' " Well then, sir, there let it be " (rolling out pom-
pously), " ' And curst be he that moves my bones.' "
Afterwards he added severely, " Jack Eartlam, I would
have any man whipt at the cart's tail who violated the
sanctity of that grave : it would be worse than Malone
' Seeing that I was utterly mistaken in my man, I
changed the subject, and was relieved to get off
' In the morning, as I was leaving, Mr. Bartlam
walked a little way with me. He said, " Chambers,
you have that skull !" There was something about
John Bartlam which forbade subterfuge. He was
genial and kind, and withal loved a joke ; so I told
him. He became, however, very grave during the
recital, and blamed me somewhat harshly, I then
thought. He made me solemnly promise that the skull
The Result. 25
should be restored ; and I (cursing my ill-luck more
than my folly) walked on to Teddy Easthorpe's, at
Stratford, who drove me home.'
' I repeatedly pressed my uncle,' writes the late
Mr. M., 'to tell me whether the skull was ever really
restored, and gleaned from him the following par-
' After waiting for the waning of that month's moon,
Chambers had arranged with Tom Dyer to replace it
one night in January, but was obliged to accompany
his employer to Mr. Wilks's, at Coughton, to a case of
compound fracture, whereupon Master Tom declared he
could manage it all by himself, as he knew a way of
getting into the church through the bone-house. The
next day Dyer was paid, after taking an oath that he
had buried the skull and made it all square, leaving no
' On the following Sunday afternoon my uncle
attended service at Stratford Church, on purpose to in-
spect the slab. There were no marks of a second up-
heaval, but there was an ominous crack right across the
slab, about two feet from the end near the communion
rails, and this might not long escape observation. To
see Dyer was my uncle's first impulse, and he sought
him early the next morning. He had gone to do some
repairs at Welford Mill; and, later in the day, my
uncle, after calling upon a cousin (at Clifford, I believe),
26 How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen.
traced Dyer to the little front parlour of the " Four
Alls," near the bridge crossing the Avon.
'Tom, who was alone and drinking like a fish, at
first protested that there was nothing up with the stone.
After considerable evasion, he admitted that it was " a
mighty dale heavier than he thought : that he had just
lifted one end half an inch or so when it began to
snap ; and to prevent further mischief he laid it down
* " You rascal ! then you never buried that skull !"
' Tom declared, however, that the old chap was there
beneath, as safe as a door-nail.'
* Again I asked my uncle, " Do you think that the
skull was ever really restored f He was silent for a
minute, and then quoted its owner for about the first
time in his life :
( (( 'Twere to consider too curiously to consider so." '
ROW SHAKESPEARE'S SKULL
HOW SHAKESPEARE'S SKULL
Since there appeared in the Argosy for October, 1879,
the startling account of ' How Shakespeare's Skull was
Stolen,' I, the Warwickshire man therein alluded to,
have been beset with letters and queries from every
conceivable quarter. Nor has the excitement abated.
The proposed exhumation of Shakespeare's bones has
revived the controversy. The above narrative has been
copied in extenso in London and provincial papers.
Dr. Ingleby has alluded to it in his recent work on
'Shakespeare's Bones;' and a whisper having been
extensively circulated that I could reveal much more if
I desired, I have been entreated from America and
Germany especially to clear up the mystery by telling
all I know. Fortunately I am able, after years of un-
tiring research, to bring to light a series of facts almost
stranger than fiction ; and which facts prove con-
clusively that the skull of the immortal bard does not
rest in the great chancel of Stratford Church.
30 Hozv Shakespeare's Skull was Foimd.
How do I prove this ? I will tell you.
Among the cherished companions of the now notable
Frank Chambers, at the beginning of this century, was
Lieutenant J. L , a young gentleman who seems to
have found the presence of a stepmother so inimical to
domestic peace that he preferred the more honourable
warfare of serving on board His Britannic Majesty's
ship Goliath against the French. During three or four
years the correspondence between the friends was as
regular and entertaining as that between Horace "Wal-
pole and Sir Horace Mann. Supplemented by other
letters from Eobert Bartlam and Thomas Hemming,
they furnish an interesting picture of the social
amenities of the fine old English gentleman, imbued
with fine old English prejudices and full-bodied port, to
be found in the venerable town of Alcester, eighty
years ago. But the friendship between Frank Chambers
and Lieutenant J. L suffered a sad eclipse in the
memorable year 1804. The young soldier, impatient
of the cautious hesitation of his commander, was
at length allowed by Captain Brisbane to go with
Lieutenant Kent, the first lieutenant of the ship, and
endeavour to cut off a small vessel that was standing
in shore. That vessel escaped their vigilance ; but,
nothing daunted, they attacked a large brig, defended
by French soldiers, and brought her out. Lieutenant
L was dangerously wounded ; and then follows an
episode which shows that the spirit of Sir Philip
Hozv Shakespeare's Skull was Found. 31
Sidney still animates British hearts. For thus writes
that ever courteous and chivalric gentleman — George
Edward Eoby, Captain, Eoyal Marines, to the afflicted
father, under date of Jan. 8th, 1804 :
* It is impossible to do justice to your son's greatness
of mind, as the night it happened he refused to be
dressed until a poor wounded marine soldier had first
had assistance; afterwards, of course, every attention
was paid him by all his messmates, and the greatest
care taken by the surgeon of him ; and we had the
happiness, as we thought, of seeing him do well until
the 23 rd ult. at night, when the ship had a great deal
of pitching motion, which unfortunately ruptured a
very large bloodvessel, by which it was understood
that death must in the end ensue ; this gave him time,
poor dear fellow, to settle his affairs, and make his
peace with the Almighty, which I assure you, sir, he
did in the most sincere, manly and Christian-like
manner possible, so that his resignation, fortitude, and
patience became the astonishment of us all,' etc.
Captain Eoby afterwards sent the accoutrements
and other property of his dear friend, amongst thorn
that packet of letters which eventually came into my
hands as the lieutenant's direct descendant, and by
which I am enabled, after much difficulty, to solve this
32 Hoiv Shakespeare s Skull luas Found.
In those letters I had noticed allusions by Chambers
to ' an unheard-of adventure,' ' a surprising visit,'
' something which must only be talked of betwixt you
and me ;' and yet three years afterwards this reluctance
to particularize seems to grow less ; and he writes on
December 17th, 1803, ' I will send the strange account
j^'ou ask for, to wait for you at Mr. Pitway's, Baldwins
Gardens, Leather Lane, Holborn.'
That this ' strange account ' could not mean the
night adventure at Stratford Church I saw at a glance.
That happened years before Lieutenant L. left Al-
cester ; and, judging from his close intimacy with
Chambers, would be well known to him. I could not
help thinking that this obscure reference had something
to do with the return of Shakespeare's skull. Once
again, therefore, I carefully examined the numerous
papers left by the late Mr. jNI. and the various memo-
randa of Frank Chambers, of which I have already
made good use. There was no fresh discovery. I have
also in my possession some books and papers left by
the brother-in-law of Lieutenant L. — the very surgeon
at Alcester with whom Chambers was long associated,
and who, as persons there living may remember, was
found dead one dark morning in Weethley Lane many
years ago, There was one bulky packet, consisting
apparently of pages torn from a professional day-book,
going back to 1798 ; and this packet had been sub-
jected to great pressure, for the leaves stuck together.
How Shakespeare s Skull zvas Found. 33
After unravelling some dozen, I came, to my surprise,
upon three rambling letters in boyish roundhand to
Chambers, detailing experiments made in a laboratory,
signed Peter Woulfe ; and then to a soiled pamphlet,
* The Jockey Club ; a Sketch of the Manners of the
Age,' inscribed 'Webb, Salford, 1793 3' and last of all
was a rough envelope, made from large-sized note paper,
sealed with two common red wafers, eaten away by
time. I trembled with excitement to see several sheets
of manuscript in the well-known hand of Chambers,
and within these was another leaflet, out of which
dropt a small piece of bone.
Yes ! a small piece of bone. I declare to you, that
I have it before me as I write. Dark on the outside ;
slightly curved, of irregular outline, measuring two
inches by one, and a quarter of an inch in its thickest
part. I observed that it was formed of numberless
tiny cells, and there was a coating of brown mould on
the inside. WeU ! it was no unusual thing for a
surgeon to possess a human skull ; but why was this
fragment so carefully secreted % I handled it reverently,
for somehow I felt convinced that I should now clear
up the mystery of ' Shakespeare's Skull.'
I at once examined the manuscript. It contained a
startling adventure which could only happen to medical
men nearly a hundred years ago ; and which the writer,
Frank Chambers, had probably intended to forward to
Lieutenant L. had the latter lived. Every care had
34 Hoiv Shakespeare' s Skull zvas Found.
been taken to conceal the locality ; and it will be seen
shortly how I was able to identify it.
' I had been sent for,' writes Chambers, ' on a cruelly
cold night in December, to an outlandish parish.
Heavy snow lay on the rough roads. This had thawed
during the day, and was now set hard with a keen
frost, so that it was near midnight before I could gain
the top of the last hill. Leaving my gig at the small
public, I walked to an old-fashioned house adjoining a
churchyard, where the patient was said to be. I
thumped at the doors, I threw jacky stones at the
windows ; not a sound. *' A pretty mess," you will
* " Why, Tom," said I, as a man suddenly swept
round the corner, with a " Hold on there !" " Why,
Tom Dyer, is that you ?"
' " I knowed you'd come," replied Tom, chuckling; "it
hain't thear, but up here," jerking a finger towards the
* " Now, measter; me and my pal" (pointing towards
a gaunt fellow in a tattered gabardine) " 'uU pay you
'ansum, if you will follow us and doctor my sister, his
missus ; but if you shine a light, or tell folks weer you
a bin, by Ave'll make you like these ere white
' " All right," I whispered ; " don't be a fool. You
can't show me greater secrets than I know already." In
fact, I felt more curious than fearful, remembering how
Hozo Shakespeare's Skull was Found. 35
seldom a doctor comes to harm, even among foot-
*"Iwas sartin sure I could trust you," continued
Tom Dyer deferentially; "mind the brambles, sir."
' "We had reached an angle of the church, formed by
the jutting out of a tall building ; and at the base, con-
cealed by a thicket of gorse and thorns, was an irregular
opening in the masonry, from whence came a ruddy
* " Try back'ards, legs fust," said Tom, as I sought
in vain to wriggle myself through. After a hard
struggle, I was down ; whilst my companions, much
larger men, slid through the opening like cats.
* For a moment I was completely dazed by what I
saw. Huge coffins partly covered with tattered cloth,
and massive shields still bright, and on them grim
helmets, gauntlets, and swords with glittering hilts, and
crucifixes curiously wrought ; whilst the near-hand
niches were resplendent with costly urns, oval in shape,
and richly chased , on one of which I read " CARISSIMUS,
1623." All these were lighted up by a bronze lamp
once used for a very different purpose, aided by glow-
ing embers of charcoal in a brazier placed near a
latticed door, through which the fumes passed under
some steps into the empty church. This, then, was the
spacious vault, nearly co-extensive with the chapel over-
head, of the once wealthiest family in the Midlands.
But I had no time for further thought. A woman,
36 Hozv Shakespeare's Skull %uas Found.
prematurely old, and wrapped in a ragged hearse-cloth,
lay moaning on a bench near the wall, to which a side
had been roughly added from materials only too handy.
She was badly burned in pear-like spots on the legs.
" A sad misfortin to come so quick after getting here ;
bilirig the kettle, and it tilted over," exclaimed the man
who had not yet spoken.
* There was another fellow, about eighteen, perhaps
the son, who sat in a narrow opening to a small chamber,
swaying his legs and chewing tobacco.
* " Get down, Jim, and give the gentleman some
rags," said the woman.
* " Let me help you," I exclaimed, as the sturdy
youth, holding the lamp, thrust his body into the
aperture, and stretched his hand towards a bundle of
clothes. I leant over him, and any doubt as to the
occupation of my companions was dispelled. On
a square block of wood I saw a heap of dies and
discs ; and near them rough counters, such as were
formerly used as checks or passes in theatres ; clippers
and iron bolts, with three or four packages like corn-
samples neatly tied. I pretended to be too intent on
the bandages to notice anything.
'" There," said I, rubbing in the salve, brought for
the scald for which I had been summoned, " keep the
skin moist, and put her in a sweat."
' I did not refuse a strong pull at the demijohn pro-
duced by Tom Dyer from among some iron pots, for
How Shakespeare s Skull zvas Found. y/
the closeness of the vault aud the fumes of the charcoal
nearly knocked me over; and yet stronger than all was
the odour of incense, reminding me of Sundays at
Abbeville. How could that smell arise 1
' I persuaded Tom to return with me to the surgery
to bring back a noted palliative for burns which Sally
Edkins had given me to settle her bill.
' In the gig we spoke very little ; but when we were
slowly passing an old hall once belonging to our family,
Tom, who had warmed with the liquor, began confi-
dentially, *' One good turn desarves another, doctor ;
and now I don't mind a-telling you as how I was druv
away in a fright from Stratford Church before I could
bury that old skull ; so, thinks I, as Measter Chambers
seems so uncommon particular to have him under cover,
I'll just pop him into one of them wessels in this ere
wault. And tJuit I did, I'll sweai, last night ; clipping
this bit out on him to leave a kind of mark, d'ye see,
for you to tell him by when you next comes to see my
' To pitch the fellow out of the gig for his knavery
was my first impulse, but my better judgment pre-
vailed. I received the fragment in silence, inwardly
vowing that the complete skull should be returned to
its old resting-place at Stratford. After all, what could
I expect from such a boor 1 That I was under peculiar
obligations to him Tom knew well enough. I con-
cealed my indignation, treated him to a bottle of
38 hozv Shakespeare's Skull was Found.
cockagee in the surgery, sent him back with the oint-
ment, and promised to see the patient three nights
At this point, most provokingly, the narrative abruptly
ends. Probably Frank Chambers was fearful of be-
traying the hiding-place of these unfortunates ; one of
whom I have identified as being defended by Campbell
in 1814, and afterwards hung in chains near Stour-
bridge. There was reason for such fear, for, among
the 160 offences at that time punishable with death,
coining was especially noticeable. The culprit was at
first strangled, and then the body thrust into the fire ;
but in the case of Phebe Harris, a few years earlier,
the wretched woman, owing to the cruel blunder of the
executioner, was tossed alive into the flames.
After reading the manuscript, I sought for further
explanation in the leaflet wrapped round the relic. The
handwriting was Chambers's, merely part of a bill :
' Dr. to Thomas Dyer.
Por refixing clapper of new bell ... 4s. 3d.
For seeing to stays and clips ... ... 3s. 8d.
The rest had gone. I saw at once that, Dyer being
iUiterate, the doctor had made out a bill for him which
had not been used. I then surmised that Shakespeare's
skull had not been replaced in the grave at Stratford ;
and I was intensely eager to trace its whereabout.
Hoiv Shakespeare's Skull zvas Found. 39
Every name and date had been cautiously concealed ;
but fortunately I have a faculty for analysis, and readily
drew my own conclusions.
Of the several parishes visited within an easy drive
of Alcester, Studley at first claimed my attention for
three reasons : the solitary situation of its church ; the
stately manor house, once belonging to the Chamberses,
skirting the high-road ; and the fact that Frank's
young cousin, afterwards curate of the parish, lodged
at Hard wick ; but I found nothing to correspond with
a large mortuary chapel. So also at the ' outlandish '
parish of Ipsley. I saw the ' plain farmhouse, close to
the church,' mentioned by Chambers in his diary, and
* the dilapidated glebe-house,' still standing as in his
day ; but I looked in vain for the ' small public,' or for
any imposing vault of the great family of Huband, so
long lords of the surrounding soil. After a week's
fruitless search, I was driving one afternoon along the
Alcester and Birmingham road, when my pony cast a
shoe, just opposite the quaint mansion half-way up
Gorcot Hill. Sending the animal to a smithy, I was
not sorry to call at a house which, as a child, I asso-
ciated with the Dingley Dell of * Pickwick.' The
great hall, with long oaken tables, and the ancient dais
still remaining ; the deeply mullioned windows with
remnants of stained glass, and the panelled parlour
beyond, where hang in courtly robes the faded portraits
of forgotten s(i[uires and dames.
40 Hozv Shakespeare s Sh<ll was Found.
' Who are these ?' I asked.
* My grandfather used to say,' replied the venerable
tenant, Mr. Aldington, ' that they were a family named
' Did they own this place f
' I never heard so, and I have been here over fifty
years ; but I do remember, as a lad, seeing scrawled on
a loose pane in the window over the porch :
' " When five generations have come and gone,
Then Will Chambers's heir shall have his own." '
I was delighted with the discovery : for this must
be the old hall alluded to by the doctor, and I was on
the right track at last.
I continued my journey, and leaving the main road
at the Bowling Green Inn, I found myself, one quarter
of an hour later, close to a venerable church, placed at
an elevation commanding most extensive views of the
country around. An old man (not the sexton) was
trimming a grave, and the tower-door was open. There
was a neat residence adjoining the road south of the
'That,' said the old man, 'is where the "public"
stood, and the wardens cast up their accounts : a great
place for cock-fighting when Master Batten kep' itj
but it was before my day.'
' Is that the Vicarage ?' I inquired, pointing to a
white house close to the churchyard.
* Yes, sir : that's where the parson lives.'
How Shakespeare' s Sktill was Found. 41
So far the evidence was cumulative. Only one
point puzzled me. It is plain, from his description,
that Chambers came and returned by way of Gorcot
Hill ; but a moment's reflection convinced mo that the
state of the roads caused him to choose the longer
road as the best — perhaps the only one passable.
When opposite the tower, I turned to the left ; and,
sure enough, parallel with the chancel was a lofty build-
ing projecting ten feet from the north aisle. In the
corner thus formed all bushes had disappeared with
the advent of rural deans ; but I saw at once that a
rough opening eighteen inches square at the base of
the projecting stonework had been recently filled in.
* Ah, yes !' replied my informant, ' there used to be
a grating to air the vault, till the bars got stole ; and
then, I've heard say as old Thomas Moore filled it up
at the burial of Madam Sheldon, seventy years ago.'
' Were they Eomanists f I eagerly asked.
' N'o ! — the old uns was born and bred in the
Leaving the patriarch somewhat astonished at my
impetuosity, I hurriedly passed through the tower to
the end of the north aisle, and I found myself in a re-
markable mortuary chapel, surrounded by magnificent
tombs under canopies, and costly tablets of the once
There needed not the ' E.I. P.' below the inscriptions
to show their form of faith ; for under the great east
42 How Shakespeare s Skull was Found.
window (blocked with monuments since mass ceased
to be celebrated by Father Bruck) stands in situ the
beautiful altar placed there even so late as 1560 : a gift
from the then Pope to the head of the Sheldon family.
I stamped with my foot ; all was hollow save the space
sixteen feet by six round the altar. The chapel is three
feet above the level of the north aisle ; and under the
steps leading thereto I carefully noticed the entrance to
the vault, through a door rotten with damp and age.
Ascending the tower, I discovered the inscription on
the latest bell to be : ' WILLM. PITTS AND THOS.
WINTERTON, CHUECHWAEDENS 1789. JNO.
EUDHALL, EECT '
I then examined, by permission of the vicar, the
churchwardens and constables' accounts ; or rather,
sundry crumbling portions of them, going back to
1658 ; and my conclusions were singularly confirmed
by this entry, under 1799 : 'Paid to Thomas Dyer of
Aulcester, for repairing new bell, as per bill, 17s. 3d.'
That this is also the year in which Prank Chambers
visited the vault is evident from the fact that he
alludes to the house adjoining the churchyard being
vacant ; and certain entries imply, if they do not
actually prove, that, upon the death of the occupier,
the Eeverend William Brittain, in December, 1799, the
vicarage-house was void for some months, until the
appointment of Dr. Samuel Parr's favourite pupil —
the Eeverend John Bartlam, in the following year.
Hoiv S J lake spe are's Skull was Fotind. 43
Christmas at midnight in an old church. With a
faithful confidant and dark lanterns like Guido Faux,
we raised the framework of the steps, and squeezing
through the aperture, felt our way down the corre-
sponding steps leading to the vault. As I expected,
the heavy door yielded to momentary pressure — in fact,
it had already been displaced. I confess, that notwith-
standing the laudable intention of my enterprise, I felt
squeamish, and my breath came short and quick, as
I and my companion stood at this solemn hour in the
presence of so much death. Even the remembrance
that ' the sleeping and the dead are but as pictures,'
almost failed to screw one's ' courage to the sticking-
place.' The lanterns threw a ghastly gleam on the
numerous O'pen coffins, and I noticed, terror-struck,
that some had struggled in their sleep ; and some
were half-raised ; and some, perfect in outline^ were
swathed tightly in cerecloth, looking as if they had
turned to marble from so long waiting with affright
in the awful darkness. I examined more closely, and
found that many of the older coffins had been rifled ;
whilst one delicate form, still bearing the sweet odours
of foreign embalming, being probably that of Mary
Sheldon, nun at Louvain, had been wantonly muti-
lated. The leaden shells were doubtless melted by
the coiners, and the lids of the outer coffins of oak
were taken perchance by reason of their rich embla-
zonry. Helmet and sword had vanished, but here
44 How Shakespeare's Skull ivas Found.
and there was a rusty gauntlet, and crucifixes of solid
silver of exquisite -workmansliip lay upon the breasts
of the sleepers.
Thank goodness, superstitious fear had preserved
them! Frank Chambers must have been mistaken as
to the niches, for I found no trace of such ; and where
were the costly urns ? At the head of the embalmed
body of ' The Eight Honourable Lady Marie, wife to
the Eight "Worshipful Ealph Sheldon, Esq. ' (whose
mysterious death in London at the house of her father,
Lord Eivers, in 1623, caused such a stir at the time),
was a plain bracket and a phial, probably of holy
water; and near the immense coffin of Ealph Sheldon,
the last of the family, who was brought from Donning-
ton Park, Berkshire, in 1822, the wall was blackened
by the action of fire. We trod upon a yielding mass
of decayed wood, mixed with nails and fragments of
escutcheons silver gilt, showing how many generations
had been here magnificently interred, even since that
imposing pageantry which marked the obsequies of the
renowned William Sheldon, on January 15th, 1.371,
when Eobert Cooke, Esq., and other heralds came down
from London to fix helmet, and sword, and rich
achievement against the chapel walls, and to pronounce
with pompous eulogy the worth and titles of the
deceased. At a sight so weirdly impressive as this
spacious vault at midnight, I forgot for the moment the
object of my search ; and wben I looked round the
How Shakespeare s Skull %vas Found. 45
naked walls, my heart sank at the idea that the
precious skull had been lost beyond recovery. There
was, however, one hope. At the foot of an ancient
coffin, on which was written below a shield bearing
three sheldrakes, ' EALPH SHELDON DEPARTED
THIS LIFE ON TUESDAY THE 24TH OF JUNE
ANNO DOM. 1684, ON WHOSE SOUL GOD HAVE
MERCY, AMEN. tETAT SViE, 60' (that steadfast
loyalist, whose concise epitaph, ' Quondam Radulphus
Sheldon Nunc Cinis, Pulvis, Nihil,' startles all readers),
I discovered the narrow opening into another chamber
described by the doctor. It was just beneath the re-
markable effigies of "William and Elizabeth Sheldon ;
and doubtless once contained their dust. But it had
long been used as an ossuary ; and all that I could at
first see, when I had squeezed half my body through
the slit, was a heap of gigantic bones, which, when
padded with sinew and flesh, must have cracked many a
skull on Bosworth Field. Yet stop ! in the corner
nearest to me, so near that by lying flat I could clutch
the rim with my left hand, was a plain earthenware
vessel, in shape like a kettledrum, and once hermetic-
ally sealed with the like cerecloth which envelopes the
Lady Marie. "With nervous energy I dragged the
heavy jar to the larger vault. The cover had been
rudely rent, and the viscera of the Right "Worshipful
Ralph had dissolved into a sediment of dark mud,
which was mingled with clippings and rude pellets of
46 How Shakespeare's Skull zoas Found.
lead ; but, ' Oh rapture !' resting on these was an
undersized skull, with a prominent forehead marred by
a jagged hole. Over that hole I placed the fragment I
had brought with me : it fitted emdlrj/ THE VERI-
TABLE SKULL OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
Elliot Stock, Paternoster Rmr, London.
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA
THIS BOOK IS DUE ON THE LAST DATE
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